Thursday, September 12, 2013

Some tips on those confusing fall warblers

For most birders, the fall warblers are some of the hardest birds to learn.  

While it is true that fall warblers can be confusing, here are some tips specific to southeast Louisiana that can greatly simplify things.

First, it helps to narrow the field.  While dozens of species are possible, ninety percent of the warblers you encounter before mid-October will be of these ten species:
Black-and-White Warbler
Tennessee Warbler
Yellow Warbler
Magnolia Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
Hooded Warbler
Northern Waterthrush
Common Yellowthroat
Wilson's Warbler
American Redstart

Here they are again, with identification tips.   The first character I list for each is the one that I consider the easiest feature for identifying the species, and is what I usually look for first.  Not every birder will key in on the same marks, however.

Black-and-White Warbler- hugs branches like a nuthatch; streaky black and white.

Tennessee Warbler- nondescript, olive above, variably yellowish below, short black eyeline,  small

Yellow Warbler- yellow (or yellow w/olive wash) all over, even on undertail coverts and tail feathers

Magnolia Warbler- neat white squares on outer edges of tail; sides and flanks yellow with blackish streaks

Black-throated Green Warbler- yellow patches cover sides of head; mainly white underparts, green back

Hooded Warbler- face with faint "helmet" look, flashes white in tail feathers; usually low in shady habitat;
    tink call

Northern Waterthrush- walks on ground teetering; brown above, streaky below

Common Yellowthroat- yellow throat and breast, brown upperparts and sides, open sunlit
     weedy areas.  Often some hint of the black mask.

Wilson's Warbler- like female Hooded (faint helmet face), but smaller without the white in tail; clep call

American Redstart- flaunts large yellow rectangles on base of tail (both sides), pale yellow-orange
    "shoulder" patches on white underparts

After these species, I would place these in the next tier of likelihood (birders would debate this):
Prothonotary Warbler
Yellow-throated Warbler
Northern Parula
Prairie Warbler
Chestnut-sided Warbler
Kentucky Warbler

Keep in mind that for some species, you may still run into males that look much like they do in spring (e.g., Hooded Warbler).  I have focused here on the the dingy female and immature plumages.

Yellow-rumped, Pine, Palm, and Orange-crowned will arrive around mid-October (or later) and be important members of our winter avifauna.  Pine will also be on the North Shore before then, because it nests there.

Good birding, Peter

for a copy of Birding Made Easy-New Orleans, email me at, or look for it at the Maple Street or Garden District Book Shops.

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